I have an Oculus Rift strapped to my face, but I'm not exactly sure what future I'm seeing.
All the potential is there, everything that's been hyped. It's virtual reality; I can move my head in 360º and look into another dimension. But it's not-quite-realized: It's awkward, a bit disorienting and, well, the demo I'm looking at is a music video of a particularly bland English electronic act called Disclosure, playing live at a festival.
I'm situated on a stage, behind the keyboard player, looking out at the vast crowd, who are all staring back at me and holding their camera phones up in front of their faces. Ah, that's what it feels like to be famous.
I'm a bit dizzy when I take the Oculus off, and when I look around at my real-life surroundings—I'm in the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, a think-tank on the future of media and journalism, hanging out with Geoffrey Long, its technical director—I'm not quite sure I'm not still in a virtual world.
I feel like I've just taken DMT, and gone on a five-minute excursion into a hyperneon, alien landscape, except that instead of being greeted by Terence McKenna's self-transforming machine elves, I've come face-to-face with an awful UK boy band. Also like DMT, I feel like I've had my sense of the real world shaken when I return to the here-and-now. My eyeballs feel stretched out, like I've been staring into a fluorescent light, and I have to take a moment to catch my bearings.
What have I just been peering into? Is it a next-generation video game console, a new toy for the military, or the world's greatest empathy-generating device—a pair of goggles that can literally show you what it's like to be another human being? Whatever it is—and it's likely all of these things, and more—it obviously carries the potential to transform the entire media firmament.
DIGITAL PSYCHEDELICS (VOMITING INCLUDED)
Some time in the next eighteen months, the world is going to change very drastically. Not like Apple Watch change—more like 1994 Web change. That's when virtual reality will start rolling out to consumers in real way. And it won't just be the Oculus Rift—Sony is already angling to capture the gamer market with its Project Morpheus, which will integrate with the PlayStation 4; Samsung is also entering the race with Gear VR.
There's been a two-year hype cycle on the Oculus—it's been largely impossible to avoid online. The massive amount of money being thrown at it by the tech elite has only been adding fuel—Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion; Google Ventures sunk $20 million+ into Jaunt VR, a startup that's formed to build 360º cameras to record film for VR. It's clear that both the tech and entertainment worlds know what's coming, and are frantically, if quietly, preparing for the wheel to turn.
But the coming VR utopia—which has been promised for over twenty years now—still has a few final hurdles to cross. Chief among them is what some journalists are calling "Sim Sickness"—quite simply, virtual reality makes more than a few people ill. Like stumbling around, throwing up, do-not-operate-heavy-machinery ill.
For reasons unknown, women seem to experience Sim Sickness a lot more frequently than men, but the data is still out—in fact, we know next to nothing about why VR is making some people sick. Is it caused by the jarring difference between what Oculus users are seeing and what their physical bodies are feeling? Is it prompted by the frame rate of the display itself? Nobody knows, nobody's talking about it much, and a lot of people are spending a lot of money to make sure the problem gets fixed—because if it doesn't, there's still a chance that VR could be the Revolution That Wasn't. Or at the very least, the revolution that only gets adopted by those who can stomach it.
Gamers—that legendarily fickle and problematic audience—will undoubtedly be the first to parachute en masse into VR; Sony is banking on it. Oculus VR has even employed John Carmack, the legendary creator of Doom, as its CTO.
But games will be far from the only application. Film and television will quickly start going 360º and virtual. (And it's important to differentiate, here, between filmed 360º content, which can be captured by specialized cameras like the Jaunt, and virtual worlds built in Unity or Unreal. Both can be viewed on an Oculus, but the first is filmed, while the second is built from scratch.) There will be therapeutic uses. I've seen guided meditations, PTSD treatments—even a simulation that helps lessen the pain children experience during heavy bandage-changing by putting them in the body of a penguin scooting down an ice slide. Then there's the weird stuff: Look around and you'll find everything from an alien abduction simulator to one intrepid individual's attempt to Kickstart a VR version of James Joyce's Ulysses.
There will, of course, be military applications. The US Navy's "Project BlueShark" is currently investigating potential uses of the Oculus for battleship interfaces. DARPA is using the Oculus to create war-game visualizations of the Internet that soldiers can move around in, allowing them to get a 3D sense of how cyber-attacks happen (perhaps they'll meet the final boss of the Internet, the hacker known as "Four Chan"). It would be an obvious guess that the Oculus may be used for remote drone operation. One blogger has even suggested, darkly, that the Oculus could be repurposed as a military torture device, trapping prisoners in flickering virtual hells.
But back to the Annenberg Labs: Geoffrey Long, who's been exploring the potential of the Oculus for new media and journalism uses at USC, after stints at Microsoft and MIT, explains to me that the device may actually disrupt wars:
"If the Vietnam War was the first war that [was] televised, and that near-unfiltered broadcast was one of the major reasons why we lost the Vietnam war," Long suggests, recalling the anger and subsequent mobilization of the American middle class in response to seeing scenes of war and drafted kids coming home in body bags on television, "what happens when this becomes the next stage of that? When you put the headset on and you feel like you're literally in downtown Israel? You look over your shoulder and there's a Starbucks there, and this is real-time, unfiltered—what is that going to feel like? We're a ways off from having an infrastructure that will allow that kind of 360º broadcast to the middle of Ohio, but you can feel that it's coming. And just like in Vietnam, when you made that jump from newspapers to television, and that had a radical impact on how we understood what was going on… [what will happen] in the next war, that's broadcast in VR? [What will happen] when we start using the exact same hardware, and more immersive hardware, to experience long-distance virtual reality news that we do for our next-generation video games?"
With tongue in cheek, I suggest that an entire nation might end up with PTSD from combat broadcasts that put them in the thick of the action. Halfway through the comment, I realize it probably isn't a joke.
A few days later, I meet the woman who's leading the push into VR journalism.
After working as a correspondent for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and others, Nonny de la Peña saw in virtual reality an opportunity to not just report the news, but put people directly into it. I saw her speak at Hub LA, a downtown co-working space, where she was presenting on her pioneering use of the Oculus. For the last few years, de la Peña has been relying on grants, favors and donations to run a one-woman pioneering mission into immersive journalism, creating VR applications to show people the kind of brutal human experiences that tend to get ignored by polite society. While the future she's modeling could well become the mainstream in five to ten years, she's currently both ahead of the curve and outside of most traditional journalists' comfort zone—de la Peña explains that many have called her efforts "crazy," though that's likely going to shift very quickly.
Her initial foray into VR was "Gone Gitmo," a simulator that lets you experience what it's like to be a prisoner detained and tortured in Guantanamo Bay, starting with having a black hood thrown over your head and getting progressively darker (and explicitly faithful to Gitmo prisoners' own accounts) from there.
Among her more recent projects—all built with Unity, the game engine that most Oculus demos are constructed in—is "Hunger in Los Angeles," a VR simulation of standing in a food bank line at the First Unitarian Church in Koreatown. During the simulation, a man who's been waiting too long for food collapses in diabetic shock in front of the user. De la Peña recounts that the simulation brought some users to tears, and that they would stoop down and cradle the virtual man's head, attempting to revive him. Another simulation depicts a real-life incident in which a man was beaten to death by the border patrol after being locked up for stealing food for his wife.
While there's currently a feeding frenzy going on in the nascent virtual reality industry—entrepreneurs and VCs have smelled fresh meat following Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR—money was not the topic here. Surprisingly, the word that came up most frequently in audience questions was "empathy." How else could the Oculus be used to help human beings develop more empathy for their fellow humans?
I AM ANOTHER YOU
This is perhaps the true promise of the Oculus: the ability to experience life from the perspective of another person, not just through artistic representation but literally, especially as 360º camera technology improves. Being able to see through the viewpoint of another human being has, arguably, been the great work of art, fiction, journalism and, really, all communication. But the Oculus makes it explicit—and while it may still be a bit awkward and buggy, that won't be the case for long.
There's probably no stopping the use of the Oculus for youth-hypnotizing first-person shooters and direct military applications—but there's also no stopping artists and journalists like de la Peña from using the Oculus to drop the boundaries between human beings and engender compassion instead of violence.
I get the same feeling of excitement about the Oculus as I did about the Web in its early days—that same feeling of catching a wave that you know will take you into the next version of civilization, that will land you in a new frontier. I also get that same sense of anarchic openness and creative collaboration that marked the early Web—and yes, that same sense of suits hovering around the edges looking to stake out territory. At some point, the independent journalists, hackers, artists, trippers and other early adopters may be sidelined by corporate money—in many ways, the big grab already happened with Facebook's purchase of Oculus. But as long as the technology is in the public's hands—both the Oculus itself and game engines like Unity 3D and Unreal—we're going to see an incredible avalanche of, well, downloadable human experiences.
As the barriers to content creation continue to fall, we'll start seeing a blizzard of conflicting realities, as everybody starts broadcasting their own unique vantage points on the universe at each other. And I look forward to seeing what creative people, and people in general, do with that—far more than I fear what the military or corporations may do.
Thanks to Noah Nelson for research assistance with this story.